My publishing journey: Signing with a literary agent

As I said in my last post in this series, once I had a complete novel manuscript I had rewritten once, line-edited and proofread, I started querying agents with it.

I’d once read a blog post by a published novelist who said that they’d queried around 40 agents before signing with one, and the process had taken 18 months. Totally arbitrarily, I decided I would only think about rehauling my manuscript and/or giving it all up and running away to the circus after I’d queried 40 agents and/or 18 months had passed without my receiving an offer of representation.

This might seem an odd way to do things, but I find with writing that you really just want to figure out a way to trick your brain into not worrying about the publishing side of things, so that it can get on with the work. (The work is the writing. The writing is the most important thing. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true!) The idea was to buy myself 18 months of peace of mind. As you’ll see, though, I never got a chance to find out if it would have worked!

I’ll talk about my query in detail in another post, but it was pretty standard US-style: I explained what the story was about, talked briefly about myself and ended by offering to send a partial or full manuscript if they were interested. Funnily enough, the chief thing that helped me draft my query letter (and actually just figure out what the book should be about) was Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 — but I’ll explain that in that other post!

I sent off my queries to 10 agents, eight of whom I’d basically just found on the Internet, and two of whom I’d been introduced to by author friends. Then I sat back, feeling contented with a good nine months’ work, and started thinking about the next project. It was going to be a space opera novella set in a world inspired by the maritime kingdoms of classical Southeast Asia (working title: Space Villette). I figured I’d have time to make a good start on a novella before I started hearing back from agents — heck, I’d probably be able to draft the entire thing by the time I had to think about Sorcerer to the Crown again, either because I had an offer of rep, or because I’d been rejected by 40 agents and had to rethink my approach.

So, er, I was wrong about that. The day after I’d sent off my queries, I got an email from an agent asking to see the full manuscript. Three days later, I had an offer of representation. A few weeks later, I had two offers, plus a third agent who expressed interest if I was willing and able to do the revisions they suggested (a “revise and resubmit”, essentially).

About a month after I’d started querying Sorcerer to the Crown, I had signed with an agent and was about to launch into revisions. Alas for Space Villette! It never got the time and attention it needed: Sorcerer was breathing down my neck the whole time. Maybe some day!

So obviously that was quite fast. I don’t know why it was so fast! The first agent had already heard of me from my short fiction, so that probably helped, because once one agent gets moving, the others either sit up a bit or tell you, “That’s not enough time for me so I’m going to sit this one out.” (To that first agent, in case they are reading this: thank you.)

If you’re querying agents at the moment, or plan to start, I wouldn’t worry if the process is taking a bit more time for you. I imagine the average time it takes to get an offer of representation for a publishable project falls somewhere between 3 days and 18 months. I was just lucky. Most of the agents I queried asked to see the full manuscript straight off, when they asked for the manuscript at all (not all of them asked to see it, of course). I don’t know if this was because the query appealed on its own, or because of the Campbell nomination, or what. (Now I think of it, I should’ve done a control group of queries where I didn’t mention the Campbell nom … but I obviously wanted all the help I could get!)

Anyway, I should point out that what the numbers mean is I got rejections from seven agents, including one I’d been recommended to. You only need one offer.

Choosing between the offers was REALLY, REALLY HARD. I know it is a nice problem to have but it was a stressful couple of weeks (mostly for my poor husband — for two weeks you may trust that I did not speak or think of anything else). All the agents had good reputations and records of good sales and all that sort of thing. They all seemed nice.

The two things I did to help me decide were:

1) Sign up for access to Publishers Marketplace.

This is a sort of database which holds records of book deals. You pay for membership and then you can search the names of publishing professionals and find out about their track record. PM also does newsletters, some of which are free — I’m signed up to them.

Because I’m cheap and I actually want to minimise the amount of time I spend worrying about the publishing industry, I only signed up for a month’s subscription — conveniently, they were having a sale at the time so I got a month at half price. Then I looked up the names of the agents who had offered. Of course you can get an idea about the sort of deals the agents you are querying have made without PM, but PM generally has more detailed and more recent information — you get a view of the range of deals agents have made, not just the biggest.

I didn’t bother signing up before I got offers because it seemed to me that there was no real need for me to have detailed information about the book deals of agents who might pass on my query. But if you’re having trouble deciding who to query, you could sign up, why not?

2) Talk to people.

This was really where having contacts was useful. I mean, it’s always useful having contacts in the industry you work in, but this was the point at which I said to myself, “Wow, I’m glad I know people actually in the industry who are willing to dish.” Writers are really generous and when I went to the people I knew and said, “I need frank talk about agents”, they absolutely came through. They put me in touch with their friends and acquaintances who might know more. They wrote me long detailed emails sharing personal details about their careers. They were great. I really appreciate everyone who took the time to speak to me, and I hope to be able to pass it on some day.

It sort of still didn’t help with the actual decision, because the feedback was overwhelmingly positive for all agents who had expressed interest. But at least I felt I was being indecisive on a larger knowledge base!

Of course I chose one agent in the end. I went with Caitlin mainly for two reasons: she had probably the best track record in sales of non-YA/MG fantasy out of the agents who offered, and I thought she was right about the revisions the book needed.

Which leads nicely into the next stage! But I’m going to cut the tension by writing the next post about my query letter, instead of going straight on to what happened next. I expect people will prefer that anyway — I know I always like reading other people’s correspondence.

 

Previous Publishing Journey posts

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them
Querying agents

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